Conflict With Small Powers Derails U.S. Foreign Policy

The Case for Strategic Discipline

By Michael Singh

Over the past decade, U.S. policymakers have argued for a renewed focus on great-power competition. The primary threats facing the United States, they suggest, are powerful states with global reach that seek to counter both American interests and the international order that safeguards them.

But American foreign policy has in reality focused elsewhere. The United States remains mired in struggles with small adversaries, including military conflicts—such as those in the African Sahel and in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria—and efforts at coercion short of war, such as those involving Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela. Entanglement in small conflicts has bedeviled presidents with starkly divergent foreign policies—all of whom entered office vowing to avoid such engagements.

Conflicts with small adversaries are not necessarily incompatible with a focus on great-power competition. After all, steps that the United States takes to contain or deter minor powers, such as stationing forces in South Korea or naval forces in the Persian Gulf, can also shape the behavior of powerful rivals, such as China or Russia. Still, conflicts with minor foes can tie down resources and consume attention, and such conflicts have proliferated in the twenty-first century despite U.S. policymakers’ avowed aim to shift focus away from them. Washington needs to exercise discipline and set a high bar if it is to avoid the next quagmire.

The United States ensnares itself in conflicts with small adversaries in part because even small adversaries can genuinely threaten U.S. interests. Iran, for example, is arguably the world’s foremost state sponsor of terrorism. On its own and through its proxy network, Iran restricts freedom of navigation through important international waterways and threatens the security of U.S. allies. If Iran were to obtain nuclear weapons, the threat it poses would be magnified: possession of nuclear weapons makes any adversary a major rather than a minor threat, no matter what its economic or conventional military profile. Similarly, a small state connected to a larger, more menacing force—for example, Afghanistan, when it harbored transnational terrorists in the early 2000s—becomes a more serious threat.

U.S. policymakers often respond to such hazards with coercion, or the imposition of costs short of outright war. Because the United States enjoys a significant military and economic advantage over nearly any possible foe, its experience—from the wars against Iraq in 1991 and 2003 to the current “maximum pressure” campaign of economic sanctions against Iran—has borne out the assumption that it can inflict large amounts damage on a rival at little apparent risk to itself. To the extent that such policies do exact costs, these tend to be so diffuse, long term, hidden, or otherwise intangible as to factor relatively little into policy decisions. Moreover, the national security decision-making process tends not to see the tradeoffs among disparate policies, because they are often made in isolation from one another.

Even small adversaries can genuinely threaten U.S. interests.
Policymakers often prefer coercion to brute force because it can be deployed efficiently by executive decision and rarely triggers meaningful congressional oversight. Moreover, it capitalizes on the United States’ advantages in power and wealth and its large and growing arsenal of coercive tools, such as economic sanctions and cyberweapons.

And yet the U.S. experience demonstrates that small adversaries are not, in fact, easy to coerce. Scholars have found that more often than not, U.S. efforts fail to force specific courses of actions on less powerful states. Even those efforts deemed initially successful in achieving their aims often do not seem fruitful in hindsight as U.S. involvement drags on.

One reason for this underwhelming track record is that U.S. policymakers tend to misunderstand the logic of power asymmetries. Armed with an overwhelming advantage in economic and military power, the United States tends to make outsize demands of its small adversaries, perhaps on the assumption that Washington should be able to exact a high price for refraining from waging a war that it could easily win. Because the consequences of U.S. military or economic intervention would be more alarming than those of complying with the United States’ demands, policymakers reason that a rational adversary should accept the demands, however reluctantly­.

But for small states, nearly any conflict with a superpower is existential—and not only a military conflict. Small states tend to fear that making major concessions to the United States could lead to escalating demands and signal weakness to regional and domestic opponents. For these states, the loss of autonomy implied by acquiescence is more worrisome than the potential damage the United States might wreak by following through on economic or military threats.

In sharp contrast, such conflicts do not threaten the United States’ survival, and Washington has only limited attention to pay to any one of them. The United States aims to win, but its adversaries often aim simply not to lose—that is, to survive without conceding until the United States decides that its least costly option is to move on. The result is often stalemate.

When such stalemates develop, the United States often has few good options for exiting them. Coercive campaigns sometimes escalate into outright war. Such was the case in Iraq in 1991 and in Libya in 2011. But these and other experiences—including the 2003 Iraq war and the decades-long U.S. engagement in Afghanistan—have left American officials and the U.S. public wary of turning to military conflict when coercion fails.

For small states, nearly any conflict with a superpower is existential.
But even if escalation is not appealing, neither is simply walking away. American officials often fear that doing so will not only deal a blow to U.S. credibility abroad but lead to domestic political repercussions. When policymakers are not satisfied either to escalate or to disengage, the stalemate often continues.

Small adversaries do their part to maintain such stalemates. Although they might seem to have a strong interest in reaching an accommodation with the United States, in fact they often resist doing so. Even if a small state will not accede to U.S. demands, one might imagine that it would be willing to refrain from provocation in return for an end to coercion. Yet for many of the United States’ small adversaries, opposition to the United States is a matter not simply of policy but of ideology: anti-Americanism is foundational to the Iranian regime, for example, just as it lies at the core of North Korean ideology. These regimes likely believe that they would risk their credibility or even their survival if they gave up their antagonism toward the United States. U.S. officials often fail to understand this dynamic.

The United States neither can nor should eschew conflict with small states altogether. The threats such states pose are often genuine, and addressing them can complement a strategy focused on great-power competition. For this reason, among others, the United States will continue to draw on coercive techniques and even military power in pursuing its interests.

But in the era just ahead, the United States will need to husband its power as rivals such as China catch up to it. To that end, the United States should set a high bar for becoming involved in struggles with small states, and it should engage in them fully cognizant of their difficulty and of the need for a clear and realistic path to success.

Such discipline will require the United States to study the long-term costs of any coercive campaign before undertaking it and to gauge how a particular course of action might affect other, especially higher, priorities. Policymakers should carefully consider how a target state is likely to perceive and respond to the demands the United States makes of it, and they should limit those demands to only what is necessary to safeguard U.S. interests. At the same time, policymakers should be willing to back up their demands credibly and should do so with a range of tools, including limited force, that signal a willingness to entertain risk and go beyond arm’s-length measures such as sanctions. Congress should then use the manifold tools at its disposal to monitor coercive campaigns that fall short of war. It could conduct hearings and appoint independent commissions to help assess the long-term costs and benefits of coercive campaigns in order to inform future policy decisions.

The United States will need to husband its power as rivals such as China catch up to it.
At the same time, the United States should make every effort to enlist the support of its allies in coercive campaigns. Doing so involves tradeoffs: the demands of a larger group of states will likely be less potent, but they will enjoy wider support. Furthermore, the costs of the campaign will be broadly shared, and the partners’ participation will reduce or eliminate the friction that measures such as enforcing sanctions might otherwise cause among allies whose cooperation is necessary to other, higher-priority policy initiatives.

Washington must be wary, however, of being drawn into the conflicts of its partners in small states. U.S. intervention in altercations between small states can turn manageable conflicts into existential ones, narrowing rather than expanding the space for compromise. And the United States should resist too readily connecting regional to global threats. In the wake of 9/11, small conflicts proliferated in part because the United States saw them as part of a global “war on terror.” A similar temptation may lead the United States to connect regional conflicts to great-power competition. Small states can indeed sometimes act as cat’s paws for great-power rivals but are just as often distractions from them.

If the United States is to strike a balance between prudence and disengagement and between economical missions and “forever wars,” it must approach conflicts with discipline and foresight. Efforts to change the behavior of small adversaries have a place in a broad foreign policy predicated on great-power competition and can even complement it. But approached incautiously, conflicts with small adversaries can sap American strength and resolve at a time when they are sorely needed.

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Turkey and Libyan Crisis

Two Main Rival Factions

Like most of the Arab nations in Arab Spring of 2011, protests also broke out in Libya, a geopolitically important state in the international arena because of its richest oil reserves in the North Africa. Eventually these protests led to a civil war and the death of the leader, Muammar Gaddafi by NATO airstrikes but it was not the end. After the death Muammar Gaddafi, violence escalated again and the second civil war erupted in 2014 because of the proliferation of armed groups in the country. The second civil war is mainly among two rival factions; Marshal Khalifa Haftar who was appointed by the parliament of Libya, House of Representatives in 2014 with only an 18% turnout and relocated to Tobruk and the Prime Minister Fayez Al-Sarraj, the leader of Government of National Accord based in Tripoli, the capital of Libya which officially recognized by the UN as Libya’s legitimate government. In addition, both of the factions have foreign supports like; Egypt, United Arab Emirates, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and France support the House of Representatives and the United Nations, Western powers including the United States but mainly Turkey, Qatar and Italy support the Government of National Accord. On the other hand, these instabilities resulted in the collapse of the state’s economy and oil industry.

Turkey and Second Civil War of Libya

Foreign powers intervened in Libyan civil war because of their strategies and economic concerns and interests and flooded this country with weapons and drones in spite of UN arms embargo. Turkey, as a foreign power in this conflict has also its own ideological and political reasons to support the Government of National Accord to increase its political and economic dominance in the region. One of the main ideological reasons is that this faction is related to the Muslim Brotherhood because in the past Turkey reportedly supported a Libyan Islamist group named the Justice and Construction Party with close ties to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, to gain a foothold in the GNA which opposes a threat to other Arab countries such as Egypt and UAE. In addition, as Mediterranean Sea is geopolitically important for the regional states, by signing a Maritime Boundary Treaty with GNA, Turkey established an exclusive economic zone in Mediterranean Sea which enables this country to claim rights to ocean bed resources which contain vast gas reserves. According to the Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Çavuşoğlu in an interview with local broadcaster 24 TV, Turkey signed this agreement to preserve the rights of Turkish Cypriots and to protect its interests in the continental shelf, while the legitimacy of this agreement have been disputed by a number of states including European Union, Cyprus, Egypt and Greece because it does not comply with the Law of the Sea and it violates the rights of third states.

Unfortunately, in spite of several diplomatic meetings and agreements on cease fire and truce among the two rival factions of the Libyan conflict and the foreign powers, the conflict has not been de-escalated enough.

This article written by Aida Farrokhpour

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Problem of Freedom in Palestine and the Middle East

This article written by Yasemin Erge

As of October 2019, one of the biggest uprisings in their history has occurred in Iraq.

Iraqi citizens, who are not satisfied with their financial situation, wages, and living conditions,
took to the streets. These actions, which have no religious or political relationship, spread to
all of Iraq in a short time.
The main target of the protesters was the administration, which was enriched by oil,
but did not see its people, leaving the people to poverty. Their second goal was Iran, which
had taken over certain institutions of the state.
Iraqi citizens started to protest to live more freely and dominantly.
The use of only the Palestinian flag and no symbols during the protests is a sign that it
is a peaceful demonstration, an action.
Another part that attracted attention in the shows was that the protesters were very
young. This situation shows us that the new generation has started to do something for their
country and they want to live free.
The Iraqi administration and Iranian militias were brutal to these events. The parties
that opened fire to the protesters killed hundreds of people, but the protesters continued to
Turkish Restaurant, which became the center of the protests, was printed by militia
and the Palestinian flag was hung on the building.
The Middle Eastern regimes have turned Palestine into a weapon they have pointed at
the other side. These groups, who declared themselves defenders of the Palestinian cause,
showed criticism and protests as a betrayal of the Palestinian cause, and they also used
weapons to suppress them.
Another aspect of this issue. Palestine is also widely used to hide the expansionist
ambitions of some countries. The Iraqi regime would legitimize its expansion towards Jordan
again through Palestine.
Iran uses Palestine as a puppet and forms small communities within other countries. Iran uses
Palestine to interfere with other countries’ internal affairs.

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From China to India

From China to India

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U.S.-China relations have been in decline for a long time. The United States had for years provided China with relatively free access to the American market. The United States wanted equivalent access to the Chinese market, but China was unable to grant this. Its industrial base produced more products than the Chinese people could consume, in terms of quantity, price and the types of products produced. China was a compulsive exporter because only exports could sustain its industrial base and hence its economy and financial system. Giving the United States broad access to the Chinese market, on the financial order of Chinese exports to the United States, would have undermined the financial foundations of the Chinese system – a system that had to a great extent funded the creation of China’s industrial system, and depended on both domestic consumption and foreign sales to balance it.

Under Pressure

China’s financial system had been under pressure since before 2008. And so the Chinese could not permit the U.S. to have equivalent trading rights, leading to the imposition of U.S. tariffs. The Chinese were in no position to agree to America’s demands because of the financial consequences it would have, and the United States was in no position to drop the tariffs because of social realities within the U.S. Many industries benefited greatly from reduced production costs and access permitted selectively to the Chinese market, even though Chinese imports had devastated some American industries. Each represented different social groups, and partly define the tensions in the American economy.

This was not a new story in the history of capitalism. From about 1890 until the late 1920s, it was the United States that held China’s place. In the late 19th century, the United States launched an industrial revolution that depended on access to foreign markets as domestic consumption was not able to support the industrial plant. Cheap U.S. goods flooded Europe until after World War I, which shredded the market for the U.S. The U.S. continued to try to surge exports but also to limit imports of, for example, Japanese textiles. In the end, the collapse of global demand for American goods led to essential but self-defeating foreign imports, and was a significant force in driving the U.S. into depression.

The China story is an old one replete with social tension on all sides and the chance of war. Global capitalism, built on a global supply chain, doesn’t require but enjoys an efficient, low-cost producer of products. The name for it now is Supply Chain. The U.S. supply chain is critical to the functioning of a large part of the global supply chain. The same is true with China. World War I constricted imports and hit the American leg of the supply chain. The same has happened to China as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. The damage to affected economies cut demand in most countries, leaving China in a difficult position.

But there was another dimension. The heightened demand for some products, such as pharmaceuticals, could not be met. The virus had also struck China, and its own internal supply chain was disrupted or redirected to Chinese needs. So as the loss of export markets staggered the Chinese economy, it was also being hit by importers’ realization that depending on one country for their supply chain was too risky. China had been regarded as a reliable exporter, one of its main virtues. But even if it could offer products at a low cost, it was no use to importers if the products they needed weren’t available. It is not that trust in China is necessarily shaken; rather, it is that the lack of redundancy in the supply chain has revealed its risk.

The Best Alternative

Two questions arise. First, China has reached the political limits of an export-based economy with a range of tensions with the United States and wide distrust of the robustness of its supply chain. It has to do what the U.S. did, after two decades of depression and war, and create massive domestic demand to drive its economy. Since global capitalism prefers a low-cost producer – or many low-cost producers – the question now is: Who will take China’s place? The obvious first option is India, a country with a massive, diverse and generally poor population, but which has a degree of discipline and entrepreneurialism, similar to China in 1980.

India, however, is not in a take-off situation. It is the fifth-largest economy in the world and is also a major exporter already. China exports $2 trillion a year, India only $345 billion. Exports account for 19 percent of China’s gross domestic product, and 14 percent of India’s. China has a population of about 1.4 billion, roughly the same as India. When you look at these numbers, you can see a large, available workforce. More important, India is a nation much less dependent on exports to drive its economy, yet it is still poor. The basic characteristic of the U.S.-China model of development is a workforce that is paid relatively low wages but an existing political order with a demonstrable economic system.

Put simply, India has grown on domestic demand, and its next stage of growth should be a surge in exports. Thus at the very moment when China is in a deep and multidimensional conflict with its largest customer, India has a unique opportunity to charge its economy from these problems. And since India and China see each other as adversaries – there was a minor skirmish in the Himalayas last week – India has a strategic as well as economic interest in this move.

The Indo-Chinese confrontation, going back more than half a century, gives the United States an opening that would make economic alignment between the two more attractive. The United States, Japan, Australia and India are also developing a naval alliance called the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. India in particular is wary of any formal alliance that requires any commitment. Unable to see the forces that might change its future, the Indian navy has merely carried out maneuvers in the Western Pacific with its Quad allies. The Chinese have noted this, of course, but they have assumed that India would not be eager to do anything formal, and that no war plan in the Pacific would be created that did not have a formal commitment.

Opportunity Waiting

The United States as a nation, and many individual companies, now see that depending on a single country as the root of a supply chain is a mistake. The situation in any one country, including how a global pandemic might impact its economy and its demand for a critical product, cannot be predicted. However attractive Chinese low-cost labor is to American companies buying from or producing in China, and however expensive redundancy might be, redundant supply chains are essential. India is the logical addition or alternative to China, and indeed already serves that role, although at an insufficient level as its export numbers show. But those numbers also show where we can expect India to demonstrate the greatest growth.

India has been a major economic power for a long time. But its historical goal is to move into the GDP ranks of Germany, Japan and China. The opportunity presented by the pandemic and China’s current poisonous relations with the United States means that U.S. companies are already choosing to move out, and India is clearly eager to host them. Inevitably, however, the economic move becomes entangled with the political and military. China and India are already hostile toward one another, and the U.S. and China are increasingly hostile. The shift in supply chains is partly related to that hostility. China would have more economic options were it not confronting the U.S. The fact that it is creates economic possibilities for India.

And India certainly knows that there are many other countries that could fill and want to fill that gap. Shifting the supply chain takes time in some cases. Deciding where to shift does not.

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